Guest Opinion: Focus on foreign campaign money
At the risk of sounding naive, we offer a simple suggestion: No matter your party affiliation or political bent, can we all agree that people in the United States should determine the outcome of our elections, not foreigners?
Evidently not, if you sit on the Federal Election Commission, the main regulatory body responsible for enforcing the nation’s campaign finance law. More about that in a moment.
Last week, reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau disclosed in a front-page story in The Sacramento Bee that the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement officials are examining how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Donald Trump.
The story goes on: “One of the allegations involves whether a system for routinely paying thousands of Russian American pensioners may have been used to pay some email hackers ... or to supply money to intermediaries who would then pay the hackers, the two sources said.”
There are many reasons why Trump won the 2016 election. We don’t believe that Vladimir Putin’s role was necessarily the determinative factor. But money matters in politics. And policymakers should confront the likelihood that offshore money washes through our political system.
On this fundamental principle, however, the Federal Election Commission, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, is mired in an exasperating state of partisan gridlock.
Federal election law of 1971 and 2002 prohibits foreign nations and nationals from making contributions in connection with a federal, state or local election. This applies to donations given to candidates and independent campaigns. But as political giving has morphed, the issue has become complicated.
Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, recently urged the commission to consider updating the rules, and raised important questions, not the least of which is “What constitutes a foreign corporation?”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Citizens United v. FEC, legalized contributions from corporations, which it describes as “associations of citizens.” Among her questions, Weintraub asks whether those associations should be made up of U.S. citizens or citizens of Mexico, China or some other country.
And what percentage of a publicly traded corporation must be held by citizens of other countries or governments before it’s considered foreign? What of corporations that decamp to, say, Ireland or the Cayman Islands to avoid U.S. taxes?
Then there’s the matter of nonprofit corporations that air ads that seek to influence an election’s outcome, without specifically saying to vote for or against a candidate. Since nonprofits do not publicly disclose their donors, no one other than the donors, the recipients and the Internal Revenue Service knows their identities.
We believe donors ought to be publicly identified. But short of that, the feds should require that the treasurers of such corporations sign statements swearing that they’ve accepted no foreign money. So far, the commission has not touched the issue, unfortunately.
As president, Trump will nominate Federal Election Commission members, with Senate confirmation. He has shown little interest in the nuances of campaign finance law, and his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, is a former FEC member who opposed most regulation.
But surely any U.S. citizen would agree that our elections should be decided by U.S. residents, not by foreign nationals, corporations or governments. Or is that, in this post-ethical era, simply naive?